From ‘Knowledge or Certainty” an episode of ‘the ascent of man’ by Dr. J. Bronowski
“The Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science–or outside of it–we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined, within a certain tolerance. We should call it the Principle of Tolerance. And I propose that name in two senses: First, in the engineering sense–science has progressed, step by step, the most successful enterprise in the ascent of man, because it has understood that the exchange of information between man and nature, and man and man, can only take place with a certain tolerance.
But second, I also use the word, passionately, about the real world. All knowledge–all information between human beings–can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or in *any* form of thought that aspires to dogma. It’s a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that scientists were refining, to the most exquisite precision, the Principle of Tolerance–and turning their backs on the fact that all around them, tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair.
The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it, the ascent of man, against the throwback to the despots’ belief that they have absolute certainty.
It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. *This* is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality–this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge or error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we *can* know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”
We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to *touch people*.”
‘WE CANNOT HOPE to match the total complexity of nature any more precisely than a language matches the complexity of social life. The answer to the polite enquiry “How are you?” is not a medical bulletin. And the answer to the scientific enquiry “How are atoms of carbon made?” is not a full analysis of the mind of the Almighty. There is a tolerant give and take in the reply that we make to questions about our health; and there is the same give and take, an essential intolerance, in the sentences that we can frame to picture the improbable generation of the carbon atom. A single experiment can be described in a bulletin; but the grand processes of nature cannot be sketched without the ambiguity which dogs all language. Science would come to a standstill if every ambiguity were resolved, for there would be nothing left to discover. It is this which makes it more vivid and more enlightening to call science a language for the machinery of nature and not an engineering drawing.’
from Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’
- Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.
- History is full of people who out of fear, or ignorance, or lust for power have destroyed knowledge of immeasurable value which truly belongs to us all. We must not let it happen again
Bronowski was a genius. His series ‘The ascent of man’ is well worth a look, really ringing home some very interesting points. I’ve seen almost all this series, and every episode is like a carefully crafted gem. It’s taken me a year to watch, and I feel humbled.
Science is never ‘the final discovery’ as if we discover everything, there will be nothing left to discover. the debate over global warming shows the real dogma of people saying it’s real or it’s not; the fact is, both are right , the globe cools and warms, as iceages and warm periods show from ice cores.
It isn’t a question anymore of ‘what is correct’, just a question of ‘what is probable’